Accusations by two former staffers against former Chattanooga mayoral candidate Monty Bruell this week also brought to light financial reporting irregularities from Bruell's campaign.
At the end of June, Alix Thornhill, former communications director for Bruell, took over his former campaign social media, deleting materials from his run which ended in March and criticizing him for allegedly defaulting on a payment agreement.
Thornhill claims she was owed around $20,000 for six months of work between the fall of 2020 and Bruell's loss in the March 2 election.
The Times Free Press also reviewed a contract for another former staffer, who was terminated before the end of the contract. Comparing it to Bruell's financial disclosures, it appears the worker was shorted between $1,500 and $3,000. Bruell confirmed that he "unilaterally" ended the contract early.
Bruell says the claims that he shorted any staff are untrue and that Thornhill was willingly a volunteer. He was backed up by two campaign volunteers who spoke with the Times Free Press.
"I'm just mystified as to why Alix is doing this and why it's turned out this way, when I treated every person on the staff the same, and I tried to be fair and honest and upfront," Bruell said Monday. "I didn't try to mislead anybody about, you know, whether I was guaranteeing them payment or not."
According to Hamilton County Elections Administrator Scott Allen, if Thornhill was in fact a volunteer, Bruell was not required to pay her or report the hours she contributed to the campaign.
"Volunteer hours are not considered contributions and [do] not need to be reported," Allen wrote in an email to the Times Free Press this week, adding that the accusations made by Thornhill and the other staffer pertain to "an arrangement between individuals, and election finance law would not apply."
But the claims made against Bruell highlighted other financial issues documented in a series of financial disclosures filed with the Hamilton County Election Commission throughout the campaign.
Bruell and Thornhill both agree that he gave her a one-time cash payment of $500 in January. She said it was a "down payment" toward what he owed her for work. He said it was a personal gift.
The money, however, was never reported to the Election Commission.
"If that did indeed happen, that's a contribution that has to be reported," Allen said.
The Times Free Press also found that Bruell did not file any financial disclosure reports until July 2020, although he had campaigned in 2019. At that time, he filed his mid-year 2020 report and also reports for 2019 that were as much as a year late.
In December, Bruell formally challenged a homeless opponent running for the same office on the grounds that the opponent had filed inaccurate paperwork with the commission.
"I want to make the point that I am not challenging Mr. Bell on the basis of his being homeless. I fully support any homeless person who would like to seek public office. I believe that his paperwork was improperly completed," Bruell said of the ultimately unsuccessful challenge.
"And so I am challenging him on the basis for not having properly completed the application to run for public office. It has nothing to do with the fact that he's homeless."
Since making her complaints against Bruell public, Thornhill has stepped down from her role as deputy campaign manager on an ongoing congressional campaign.
Thornhill and Bruell do not agree about whether he intended to pay her, but Thornhill has shared screenshots of texts between her and Bruell asking him to meet with her to discuss payment multiple times.
Thornhill also shared partial audio of a meeting between her and Bruell in May, during which she asks him about the outstanding pay, and Bruell says he cannot compensate her due to a lack of funds.
"I'm sorry that we didn't have a bigger budget," Bruell said. "So my desire to pay you [interuption] my desire to pay you was trumped by my total lack of resources."
"I felt like that was your position because I felt like you would have said something to me if you were able to," Thornhill said to Bruell during the May 11 meeting, parts of which can be heard on the audio clip.
"As I said, if there's any way that my influence can help you, if there's a gig you would like to have and I can help you get it, I would certainly do everything in my power to help," Bruell said.
"I really appreciate that and I really would like to have known whenever you came to the point in time when you realized that you were not going to have money to pay me, or maybe the intention to pay me had diminished," Thornhill said. "I wish you would have let me know because I really — I didn't accept certain opportunities while I was on the campaign because I believed I was going to be paid by the campaign.
"And I could have made money elsewhere, but I dedicated all of my time to the campaign and my energy."
She goes on to say she's not currently interested in his help finding a job and that "things would certainly have been different" if she knew she was not going to be compensated by Bruell's campaign.
"I think it wasn't really apparent to me how little money we would have until the very end," Bruell said, followed by something inaudible.
"And I basically zero-ed the checking account."
Bruell was asked multiple times between Monday and Friday about the authenticity of the screenshots, contract and audio recording cited in this story and at no point confirmed or denied their legitimacy.
Bruell came in fourth place in the March 2 primary, with 8.5% of the vote. Top vote-getter Tim Kelly won the seat in an April runoff against Kim White.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.